Cecilia Payne, the woman who discovered the composition of the Sun

Cecilia Payne was a pioneering astrophysicist who made a groundbreaking discovery about the composition of the Sun that revolutionized our understanding of the universe. Born in London in 1900, Payne was a brilliant student who excelled in mathematics and science. Despite the prevailing societal norms of her time, which discouraged women from pursuing careers in the sciences, Payne was determined to pursue her passion for astronomy.

In 1919, Payne enrolled at Cambridge University to study astronomy. She quickly established herself as one of the top students in her class, and her exceptional talent and dedication caught the attention of prominent astronomer, Arthur Eddington. Impressed by Payne’s potential, Eddington offered her a scholarship to pursue graduate studies at the University of Cambridge.

In 1923, Payne received her PhD from Cambridge and was awarded a fellowship to continue her research at the Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was there that she made her most important contribution to astronomy.

Payne’s research focused on the composition of stars and the elements they contain. She used a technique called spectral analysis to study the light emitted by stars and determine their composition. In 1925, she published a thesis entitled “Stellar Atmospheres,” in which she presented the groundbreaking discovery that the Sun was composed primarily of hydrogen and helium, rather than the heavy elements that were believed to be the primary components at the time.

Her discovery was a major turning point in the field of astronomy and challenged the prevailing wisdom of the time. Payne’s findings implied that the elements found in the Sun and stars were formed in the first few minutes after the Big Bang, and were the building blocks of all the matter in the universe. Her discovery laid the foundation for the modern understanding of the evolution of stars and galaxies, and revolutionized our understanding of the universe.

Despite the significance of her discovery, Payne faced significant obstacles in her career due to her gender. Despite being one of the most talented and well-respected astronomers of her time, she was not offered a permanent position at Harvard and was instead relegated to the role of a research assistant. It wasn’t until 1956, more than 30 years after her groundbreaking discovery, that Payne was finally granted a full professorship at Harvard.

Despite the challenges she faced, Payne continued to make important contributions to astronomy throughout her career. She wrote several influential books, including “The Theory of Stellar Atmospheres,” which remains a seminal work in the field of astrophysics. She was also a tireless advocate for the education of women in science and worked to encourage young women to pursue careers in the sciences.

In recognition of her pioneering work, Payne was awarded numerous honors and awards, including the Bruce Medal, the highest award in astronomy, and the National Medal of Science. She was also inducted into the Royal Astronomical Society, and her discovery was listed as one of the 100 most important discoveries in the 20th century by the magazine “Discover.”